Saturday, February 16, 2008

Turn that smile upside down

Every year, there are a few students that really stand out. Might not necessarily be the best or brightest, but there's a personality, or fire, somewhere inside that make those kids memorable. One of those kids this year was someone with the nickname Smiley.

Smiley was a positive, inquisitive girl in my fifth period class. Plus, when you saw her smile, you knew where the name came from.

It's the start of the second semester, and I'm talking about Smiley in the past tense. That's because she's gone. Quit. Hasn't been to school in weeks, and doesn't intend to come back.

In late December, just before winter break, she had been absent for a couple of days, and one of her friends asked me to call her at home. "I called her, and she was crying, saying that school was pointless," the friend said. I asked the friend for the phone number--sure, we have all of our students' personal information, but often it's wrong, so I needed a number that would be answered.

I called. Smiley's mom picked up. "Oh, she's got a cold," mom said. "She'll be back tomorrow."

And she was. After class the next day, I asked her to stick around. "I talked to your mom yesterday," I said. "She said you had a cold." She nodded. "Is that all that was wrong? Or is something bothering you?"

She stood there for a bit, contemplating.

"It's just that I don't see the point in coming to school," she said. "I mean, I have two classes that matter, with teachers that care and make me think. The rest of the day I just sit there." She gave me a rundown of her schedule, talking about the incompetent, bored, unprofessional teachers she has this year, her junior year, the year that'll determine her college choices and chances.

And what could I say? There are a lot of shitty teachers in Chicago. Protected by a shitty union. Sure, our school also has many, many dedicated teachers, working hard, pushing the students, expecting much. But ... sometimes a student gets an unlucky schedule.

So, my advice went something like this: "You're right. Some of your teachers aren't the greatest. But here's the thing. You have dreams of going to college. You want to be someone. If you quit because of your schedule, you lose. Those teachers stay. Here's what you should do: In those classes where nothing's happening, where the teacher has no control over the students, or doesn't care what you do, you should sit away from the disturbances and read something. Study on your own. And then in the classes with good teachers, really work hard. Every day, look for that one moment where you really learn something. One moment can change your entire life, and you don't know when that moment will happen, so you have to come to school every day and look for it."

I ramble like that a lot. I spend hours each week encouraging students to just stick around, trying to convince them that it's all worth it in the end. I should go into sales. Every once in a while it works.

In January, Smiley was back, looking invigorated and eager. "Hey, it's great to see you," I told her.

"I decided to take your advice," she beamed. "And you're right. Every day, I can learn at least one new thing."

That was about a month ago now. She hasn't been in class in the past three weeks. No one's answering the phone.


Eric said...

During my time as a public school teacher, I think I found the lousy teachers to be the most demoralizing aspect of my job. It wasn't JUST that they were hardly working for (in most cases) more money than I was getting. It was also that they actually made my job even harder, by making students expect "free periods" all the time, or by creating a situation where kids showed up for my class all "hyper" because they had been bouncing off the walls for the previous hour or two.... Ugh....

ms g said...

I agree with eric-going as far as also having issues with "fave" teachers, who were only "fave" for a select few--so many of the kids I saw were either "in" with someone cool or not...and those who weren't KNEW they had nobody...but sometimes I found that those kids who had something, some kind of spark, you know, they made it regardless.

I have been lucky enough to run into them across the city (oddly, often at Targets)--and while they didn't go to college, 2, 3 years out of hs, they weren't strung out, or with 3 kids, or on the dole (unlike plenty of middle class kids I went to school with)--they were still fighting the fight. A little beat down, but still swinging.

I'm going to hope that Smiley is still fighting the fight 3 years from now...that "spark" is crucial (and ultimately unteachable--I've seen plenty of "successful" people with no spark)--and she'll know you recognized it, and encouraged it, and sometimes that's all we can do...

Fuma├ža said...

that is such a great story. you captured something so beautiful in that dialogue. keep writing!

Rich said...

It's been over a week without a fix,er, uh, post. Please post soon before the shakes set in.

-- Rich the photoguy